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PS3: The Root of the Problem

Feature; Jan. 19, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By Jenner David Cauton
Subtypes: Opinion
It really now can "do everything."

The PS3 has been touted as a video game console that simply cannot be hacked, but it was only a matter of time before someone proved it wrong.

Hacker team "failOverflow" and iPhone hacker George "geoHot" Hotz, recently revealed the PS3's root key publicly. The root key is an encryption key that, if used with other code, can make the PS3 run any kind of software. Hotz then promptly contacted Sony about his discovery and even offered his security services at Nintendo, Microsoft, or Sony. Sony sent Hotz some papers all right, but it wasn't exactly a job application.

Hotz was the first person to ever hack or "jailbreak" the Apple's iPhone, and at that time, doing such things was illegal, but he never went too far. Recently, however, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has deemed this process legal. Users can now install unsupported applications and extensions freely -- but it's still at the risk of voiding the warranty.

Sony has taken note of the public release of the system's root key and is now suing Hotz for exposing the system. According to Edge Magazine, Sony cannot simply change the key, as it wouldn't allow any current games to run, as they all rely on the current key. In addition, the PSP is in jeopardy, as it also uses the same key.

Hotz has responded with claims that hacking the PS3 in order to promote piracy was not his intention, that he doesn't support the act of piracy, and that he took extreme measures to makes sure his jailbreak program made piracy impossible. "I made a specific effort while I was working on this to try to enable homebrew without enabling things I do not support, like piracy," says Hotz, on a recent G4 interview linked by Kotaku. Apparently, this isn't enough for Sony. He continues to say that he is essentially being sued for simply "making Sony mad."

Hotz previously released a jailbreak hack that, when inserted into the PS3, would allow users to install third-party software, similar to rooting one's phone. Combined with the root key, however, according to Sony, leaves the PS3 open to pirated software. Whether this is actually true remains to be seen.

David Touretzky, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says the lawsuit violates free speech, and has also mirrored Hotz's website on the university's servers.

In the past, the PS3's firmware had an additional option to install other operating systems -- a menu option called "OtherOS." However, that version was quickly updated, removing the ability once it was realized the option left room for piracy. It was for this sole reason that "failOverflow" banded together to crack the overly priced machine. "Our motivation was Sony's removal of OtherOS," says members of failOverflow. "Our exclusive goal was, is, and always has been to get OtherOS back."

While there's no mention of any piracy yet, what there has been a lot of is hacking -- something that was previously impossible on the PS3. The PS3 version of COD: Modern Warfare 2 is currently attracting swarms of hackers -- only this time, developer Infinity Ward can't do a damn thing about it. 

"Games rely on the security of the encryption on the platforms they're played on," posted Robert Bowling in the IW forums. "Therefore, updates to the game through patches will not resolve this problem completely, unless the security exploit itself is resolved on the platform." Bowling stresses that if players want to play online, they are encouraged to play with friends only.


You know, I can't say I'm surprised the PS3 was hacked. It was bound to happen. What I wasn't expecting was a prominent hacker to go ahead and post the secret online. What's even more disgusting is many people seem to think Sony is stupid for not hiring this guy instead of suing him. How cocky do you have to be to post such an exploit, and deliberately offer your services to the same company you just hacked? It's the same thing as threatening someone, only doing the damage first before actually making the threat. 

I also find it distressing that a lot of people have said it's Sony's fault for creating a faulty security system or removing OtherOS. Last I checked, poor security isn't a crime and doesn't make hacking it anymore justified. If Sony wants to remove something from its system, (especially if it allows for something illegal) the company has every right to do so. This is the very thing the common argument of rightful ownership touches upon, but in buying a PS3, or any console, don't you agree to adhere to the rights of any changes made to the console thereafter -- or am I missing something? OK, so Hotz's intentions were good, and he said piracy with the root key and jailbreak is impossible. So why is MW2 being hacked in that case? If Hotz doesn't support piracy, does he not support cheating too? Or was this overlooked? Too late, regardless.

Just because you don't support something doesn't mean others aren't going to do it. But whether he does or not, if MW2 can be hacked, it's most likely the root key can provide for piracy as well, as many believe the exploit is completely unrecoverable. Let's hope I'm wrong.

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